People with depression have impaired intuition

People who are depressed often complain that they find it difficult to make decisions. A new study provides an explanation. Carina Remmers and her colleagues tested 29 patients diagnosed with major depression and 27 healthy controls and they found that the people with depression had an impaired ability to go with their gut instincts, or what we might call intuition.

Intuition is not an easy skill to measure. The researchers’ approach was to present participants with triads of words (e.g. SALT DEEP FOAM) and the task was to decide in less than three and a half seconds whether the three words were linked in meaning by a fourth word (in this case the answer was “yes” and the word was SEA). Some triads were linked, others weren’t.

If the participants answered that the words were linked, they were given eight more seconds to provide the linking fourth word. However, it was perfectly acceptable for them to say that they felt the words were linked, but that they didn’t know how. Indeed, when this occurred, it was taken by the researchers as an instance of intuition – that is, “knowing without knowing how one knows”.

There were no differences between the depressed patients and controls in the number of times they provided the correct fourth, linking word, nor in the number times they provided no response at all. This suggests both groups were equally motivated and attentive to the task. But crucially, the depressed patients scored fewer correct intuitive answers (i.e. those times they stated correctly that the words were linked, but they didn’t consciously know how).

Having poorer intuition on the task was associated with scoring higher on a measure of brooding (indicated by agreement with statements like “When I am sad, I think ‘Why do I have problems others don’t have?'”), and in turn this association appeared to be explained by the fact that the brooding patients felt more miserable.

Remmers and her team said their study makes an important contribution – in fact, it’s the first time that intuition has been studied in people with major depression. The results are also consistent with past research involving healthy people that’s shown low mood encourages an analytical style of thought and inhibits a creative, more intuitive thinking style.

However, I couldn’t help doubting the realism of the measure of intuition used in this study. Is a judgement about word meanings really comparable to the gut decisions people have to make in their lives about jobs and relationships?

Two further questions that also remain outstanding are whether an impairment in intuitive thinking is a symptom or cause of depression; and is this intuition deficit specific to depression or will it be found in patients with other mental health problems?


Remmers C, Topolinski S, Dietrich DE, Michalak J (2014). Impaired intuition in patients with major depressive disorder. The British journal of clinical psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 25307321

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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